August update: A berry good year

Every year there’s a crop that excels, while another one flops. So this year, as I update my Farmer John’s organic Foods blog, I’ll report on the highlights and lowlights so far.

Highlight — the berry good times

This is, beyond any remote doubt, the year of the berry. Here at Farmer John’s that means the blueberry and raspberry.  I have never, in my 30 years of gardening, seen such a productive crop year for berries.

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The blueberry crop started out looking great way back in April, when I noticed that the winter moth population had entirely collapsed. These nasty little imports from Europe have plagued the blueberry crop throughout New England, but this year something dramatic happened. They just plain disappeared. The winter conditions — specifically an early freeze that prevented the females from emerging from the ground to lay eggs — were the cause.

That is a huge deal. Two years in a row (2015 and 2016) they wiped out my entire blueberry crop. Last year I had a partial recovery, harvesting about 25 quarts. This year I’ve harvested 105 quarts, and there’s at least another 15-20 yet to ripen. That is an abnormally large harvest. I think it’s at least in part due to the work I put into the bushes. They were planted 70 years ago by the farmer who once owned this farm, Luther Colby, and they’d not been taken proper care of for many years. Last year I booked up on how to restore old blueberry bushes, and the efforts paid off. I also go to extreme lengths to keep the hungry birds out, constructing a massive temporary cage around them to protect the fruit.

Raspberries have also had an exceptional year. I use about a half ton of well-rotted horse manure to fertilize them in the spring, and they responded well to it, producing over 60 quarts. It looks like I will have a strong fall crop too. Those berries will go on the stand in mid September.

I also planted strawberries and blackberries. I expect to be putting them on the stand when next year’s crop arrives.

Lowlight… the hogs and rascally rabbits

I know I’m not the only farmer who has noticed that little critters have had an exceptionally fun and productive year. I’ve never seen such a huge population of rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels and chipmunks. I love to see them gathering food around the woods and field behind our house, but when they venture into my garden — not so cute. I’ve lost a lot of produce to them this year. My corn crop was entirely wiped out, as well as my broccoli, kale, collard greens, and cucumbers. These are all things that my customers like to have on the stand, so it was tough seeing them wiped out.

I did manage to drive all of the critters out of the garden. The kale is recovering, and cucumbers have been replanted and placed under a protective row cover, so I hope to have them on the stand in September.

It looks though like I have an even greater menace that’s nuzzling up to the edges of the garden. Last week I spotted 5 deer lingering around the edges, and I’ve noticed that they’ve chewed down everything that’s within heads-reach of the fence. I’ve erected what I hope will be an effective anti-deer barrier — basically a row of strings hung at intervals of 4, 5 and 6 feet. We’ll see whether I can keep the deer at bay.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods in Amesbury, Mass. It’s a low-cost neighborhood farmstand that features locally grown organic fruits, veggies and eggs.

April, you fooled us

April left us yesterday, the same way it arrived — like a soggy and cold lion. What happened to the lamb part?

I checked my garden log from last year and found what you’d probably suspect — this spring has been unusually cold, and late.

We’re about 2 weeks behind where we might normally be. The signs are everywhere — for instance, a local friend who fishes religiously for shad noted that the ocean and river water have been too cold to support them, so their arrival locally has been delayed. Plants that would normally be fully blossoming right now — like forsythia — are just barely starting to blossom.

I think most of us plant by the calendar, but this year it might be more accurate to use a time-honored technique called phenology. It’s not to be confused with phrenology, the quackish study of lumps on your head. Phenology is a very accurate guide to assessing soil temperatures and air temperatures by monitoring the progress of perennial plants, such as forsythias, maple trees, bulb flowers and the like. Here’s a quick and handy guide.

 

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The girls are hoping the grass greens up soon. Not terribly good pickings just yet.

 

With the help of phenology, you can determine whether the conditions are right to plant. And since vegetables are derived from every climate zone of the planet, you need to be sure that you are planting at a time when soil and air temperatures are correct.  According to the phenology calendar, we are finally able to plant peas, which I did earlier this week. By the weekend the spring timetable will likely take great leaps and bounds as the temperatures head into the unseasonably high mid 80s, and night time temperatures will stay above the mid 40s — in fact they will stay in the 60s for a few nights. That’s like leaping into mid June.  Based on the weather forecast, we’ll probably make up for at least half of our 2-week spring deficit over the course for the next few days. I’m hoping the unusually warm weather will dry out the soil a bit. It’s just too soggy right now.

New gadget

This year I’ve incorporated a new gadget to help with planting. It’s an Earthway precision garden seeder. It had generally good reviews on YouTube and elsewhere, and it’s fairly low cost for this kind of gizmo (about $110). The main reason I bought it is to do a better job planting small seeds like beets and lettuces over long stretches of garden rows. If you studied the lumps on my head via phrenology, maybe you’d find a different reason why I bought this thing.

They arrive partly unassembled, but assembly is quick and very easy. They seem to be well designed, lightweight and easily storable. The most clever aspect of it is how it disperses seeds. You insert a disc template into its drive that is shaped to accept whatever kind of seed you are planting. It then digs a furrow, plants the seeds at regular intervals, and them covers the seeds and packs them down. All you have to do is push it in a straight line.

I gave it its first tryout earlier this week, planting peas. I very quickly learned that it has some quirks. First off, the soil here is still fairly wet and clumpy, and that led to an uneven spread of seeds. Also, it’s best to have long straight rows. This thing doesn’t do short rows, at least not well. It also has a little bit of trouble processing the seeds correctly, so every once in awhile a seed would pop out of the hopper like it was shot out of a cannon.

But overall, I think it was worth the investment. You can plant large areas in a snap. It’s super easy to use.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it does with lettuce and beet seeds, which I’ll put in later this week or early next.

That’s it for this week. By this time next week I expect there will be a lot more to talk about — including the arrival of seedlings on the farm stand.

John Macone owns and operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farm stand in Amesbury, Mass. The stand will open in mid May.

5 ways to get through the wintry spring blues

Technically it’s been spring for almost 3 weeks, but I guess Mother Nature prefers to replay winter’s Top 10 hits.

Boy, it stinks. Too cold to do much of anything outside. And yesterday, as if the biting and raw cold wasn’t enough, we got a coating of snow. And next week they say we are in for another Nor’Easter, our 18th in 3 weeks. Or something like that.

I know, we’ve all had enough. Check out the “scenic” photo at the top of this blog.  Says it all. Bleak. People are ready to get outside and start the spring planting process. But it’s a futile prospect for at least another week, maybe longer.

So what’s a bored outdoorsperson to do?  Well, in order to cheer myself up, and hopefully anyone else who reads this blog, I came up with a list of 5 things that may put a little spring in your step.

1 — Go to a spring-themed event

This is the time of year when chambers of commerce and horticultural societies hold their spring marketing events.   In my town, there’s a local home and garden show, which I plan to check out. There’s a bunch of different events going on this weekend around Boston. Here’s one that looks interesting, though a bit pricey.

2 — Watch some YouTube videos

YouTube is a fantastic resource for learning about new techniques for gardening. There are thousands of videos that will inspire you. Pick something you’d like to get to know better, say no-till gardening, and check out the uploaded videos. Here’s one channel that I’ve been watching.

3 — Find a new plant to plant

You may have already bought all your seeds, but maybe there’s a new plant out there that you’d like to try. Take a nice warm bath or shower, get warmed up and lulled into a springtime mode, and think about the stuff that you’ve wanted to grow but haven’t. Then, get on your computer and start finding your new plant for 2018. Here’s what I picked. (I skipped the shower).

4 — Find a new website to visit

Do a little web surfing, and you are bound to find a new site that has a bunch of stuff that you’d love to buy, or maybe a lot of information that’s useful for research. Here’s a site I found for my “find a new plant” project.

5 — Find a new tool to buy

There’s always some new (or old) gadget that’s worth checking out, some labor-saving device that might make your toil a little less toilish. Here’s a selfless self promotion — a column I did last year on 3 tools to check out. And of course there are tons of other tools to check out. YouTube is again a good place to look. Here’s a typical video on a great tool.

Well hopefully those five things will keep you occupied until the temperature hits 50. Think spring!

John Macone owns farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. If you want to get updates on what’s happening at the farmstand, like the Farmer John’s Facebook page.

 

March update: A no-till experiment

I’m an old dog when it comes to gardening and farming. But this year I’m going to try to learn a new trick.

Saturday’s fine weather (low 50s and sunny) was perfect for the first task of getting the crop field ready. Normally that first task would be rototilling and maybe laying down a smattering of lime, but this year the tiller will for the most part stay in the barn. I decided to try “no-till” farming to see if it is as effective as its fans say it is.

I have one main reason for being drawn to no-till. My growing field is on a moderate slope, dropping about 6-8 feet over a 65-foot width. It’s also located about 1/3rd of the way down a long sloping hill, and that means it is subject to a lot of water flow and erosion. Usually after I rototill, it seems that there’s a hefty rainstorm that causes dozens of rivulets to run through the field, pulling down the freshly turned earth with it. Occasionally the runoff ends up depositing in a wooded glade below the field. It looks like a mess. Not good!

Benefits of no-till

No-till gardening is ideally suited to prevent erosion from happening. It also has three other benefits of note.

  • It doesn’t suffer the compaction problems that tilling causes. Rototilling may seem to aerate the soil at first, but over the course of a few weeks the soil will actually compact into a much tighter mixture than before. The air pockets that you created by tilling are quickly eliminated because the soil has lost its natural structure. This makes it much harder for plants to thrive.
  • The billions of microscopic critters that live in your soil don’t have their world turned upside down. In effect you’ve killed the complicated world that micro organisms have worked all year to build. All of the benefits that the micro environment provides for your plants and for a healthy soil must be rebuilt from scratch every time you rototill. The experts argue that by leaving that micro environment in place, you will increase the fertility of your soil.
  • Old weed seeds don’t see the light of day. The act of turning the soil exposes thousands of weed seeds to a better growing environment. The argument goes that by not turning the soil, you’ll have fewer weeds.

From a practical standpoint, there’s a couple things to consider when doing a no-till garden. The soil still needs to be aerated, and that means some hefty work on your part. First you need to rake off all the “garden garbage” that was left on top of the soil last year. And you’ll need to cart it away — or maybe not. I was thinking I’ll leave it on the garden paths to act as a mulch/soil saver.

Next, you’ll need a pitchfork to loosen the soil in order to get some air down there. This I think is the hardest part, especially if you have some substantial real estate to garden in. You’ve got to push that pitchfork down as far as it will go, then pull back on the handle about a foot for so. Pull back just enough to loosen the soil, but don’t pull hard enough to pull up that clump of soil you’ve latched onto. You want it to stay pretty much intact so that the micro organisms don’t have their world turns asunder.

Stage 1 completed

So on Saturday, instead of rototilling (actually the ground was too wet to till), I got my measuring tape out and laid out my garden bed grids. Last year I expanded the garden significantly, and so I’m able to fit 20 125-square foot beds (each is about 5 feet wide by 21 feet long), plus 4 120-square-foor beds (each is 3 feet wide and about 40 feet long), plus a half dozen other odd-sizes beds. I also laid out a cross-shaped grid of 3-foor wide paths, connected by a grid of smaller 2-foot wide paths. that’s a lot of math and yes i screwed it up a bit and had to re-lay some of the lines. But in the end it all looks pretty neat and tidy.

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My early season beds after being raked. The beds are pretty long, about 3 feet by 41 feet, and they follow the slope of the hill. In past years I’ve had some serious erosion along these beds, so I’m hoping that no-till techniques will minimize that.

 

Next, I started the no-till process — I gently raked off the top detritus in some of the beds where I plan to plant my earliest crops. I didn’t have the hootspa to start the task of pitchforking/aerating each of the beds.  I’ll save that for tomorrow.

As you can see from my cover photo, I uncovered last year’s catnip, which caused my buddy Big Mac to have a very pleasant afternoon. In the photo he’s staggering off from a nice rendezvous with the catnip plant. Also, i spotted the first crops that are springing up — rhubarb. The asparagus won’t be too far behind.

Are you interested in a no-till garden? Let me know at my email address, maconer@Comcast.net. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

John Macone owns and operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts that offers organic vegetables, berries and eggs at very affordable prices. For updates, like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

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Rhubarb starting to spring from the ground

 

Spring farm update: Burn brush, plant seedlings, raise more chickens

Outdoors it looks like the depths of winter, but the calendar indicates it’s nearly spring. And with a Nor’Easter and 8-12 inches of more snow predicted for later this week, it looks like winter is keeping a firm grip on us.

Well, winter may still be clutching at us, but I’m going to try to defy it and stay with the calendar. It’s nearly spring, and so all of the activities that go along with spring prep at my small but growing organic farm are my primary focus.

I’ve been encouraged by the number of local people who enjoyed buying inexpensive organic vegetables and fruits at my stand last year. Some of them have been asking me what’s up for this year. Well, in short I’m planning to offer a lot more organic food, at very reasonable prices!

That involves a lot of prep work. So here’s a look at 4 of the biggest duties this coming week:

Chickens: This has been a really strong spring for egg production. In general I’m getting about 5-6 eggs per chicken per week, and that’s probably the best ratio I’ve ever had. So I’ve got more eggs to sell than normal. If you are interested in fresh eggs ($4 per dozen, best eggs you’ll ever have), email me at maconer@comcast.net and I’ll set you up.

I’m also looking at expanding the flock.  I’m thinking of getting a couple dozen day-old IMG_2007hatchlings and raising them to pullets. I’ll keep a few for my own flock, but I’ll sell the rest when they are about 12 weeks old — that’s the time at which they are big enough to survive on their own without a heat source or special diet. It saves a lot of hassle when you buy them at 12 weeks old. Are you interested in having chickens? If you are interested in buying young 12-week-old chicks, email me.

Winter moths: These nasty little creatures have really done a job on the local environment. They’ve brutalized our blueberry bushes, but now I think the tide is turning against them.

When we first moved to this farm nearly 4 years ago, the 70-year-old blueberry bushes showed what they are capable of producing. We got over 40 quarts from them, and we would have gotten probably 50% more if I had been able to focus on erecting an anti-bird barrier. But that fall, the winter moths moved in like a locust plague, and everything changed. For 2 years we didn’t get a single blueberry — let alone a single quart. But over the past 2 years I’ve managed to put a major ding in their population. My primary weapon has been our chickens, which eat the winter moth larvae by the thousands. I’ve also been spraying the bushes with a dormant oil spray and a mild form of Bt. You can really nuke them if you use chemical pesticides, but I choose to stay organic. And by staying organic, I think you need to use multiple strategies to deal with winter moths.

The strategy has been paying off. Last year we had a decent blueberry crop — about 20 or so quarts. That was good, but the real results of my winter moth vendetta shined in the late fall and early winter, when winter moths emerge from the ground and flock by the thousands at night. This past winter, there were very few of them.

So next week I plan to double down on what’s left of them. I’ll be spraying the homemade dormant oil mixture on the bushes. By mid April I’ll do some sprayings with Bt, and of course the chickens will be running wild once the snow melts.

Seedlings: Last year I had pretty good success growing and selling seedlings, so this year I’ve expanded the quantity and types that I’m growing. The new seedling table that I built last month has been working out well. It’s allowed me to increase the growing area by over 150%. I’ve got a decent crop of broccoli, lettuce and onions going, and later this week I’ll start growing tomatoes. I plan to sell the following types of heirloom tomato seedlings on the stand starting in mid May: Brandywine (pink and yellow varieties), Campari (this is a substitute for German Lunchbox), Sun Gold, Amish Paste, Chadwick Cherry, Tappy’s Heritage, Golden Jubilee, and Pink Tigers. I also hope to offer Brad’s Atomics, which are a brand new tomato variety that had a very loyal fan following at my vegetable stand last year.

I’ll also be growing and selling several other varieties of vegetable seedlings on the stand, including some new varieties that my customers asked me to grow. I’ll list them in future blogs.

Soil and grounds prep: This winter has been hard on the trees. We’ve had a substantial amount of damage caused by heavy wind, as well as by wet, heavy snow. The result is hundreds of branches of every size blown down and broken on the ground.

The remedy is brush fires. Not only do you get rid of the branches in a quick and fun way, you also get a rich source of natural nutrients in the form of wood ash.

So far this year I’ve had 2 large brush fires, and judging by the amount of downfall on the ground, I’ll need at least 2 more. but that’s still far short of last year’s record, when I had 8 large brush fires to get rid of the huge quantity of branches that were scattered all over the yard.

The tilled area of the farm has been fallow since last fall, when I cleared off all the dead plants (especially tomato plants, which were burned because they carry soil-borne diseases such as early blight). I laid down some compost and stockpiled some rotted horse manure, but this was the first year I didn’t do a fall rototilling. Instead I planted winter rye. The field sits on a fairly steep north-leaning slope, and tends to erode when the spring thaw and spring rains occur. So to avoid erosion problems, I’ve left it as is for now. I’ll probably rototill in mid April, once it sufficiently dries out.

Hopefully by next weekend we’ll have a spring-like look to the backyard. Looking forward to that!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass.  Get the latest updates on Farmer John’s by liking its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

Why you should build a seedling/sprouting table

Have you bought seedlings at the big box stores and discovered a couple months later that you wasted your money? Did those healthy-looking plants end up withering and producing poor quality fruit?

That seems to be the usual pattern. Oftentimes the methods used to produce those very appealing seedlings also makes them unhealthy in the long run. They grow too fast, with too much fertilizer. Then they become root-bound and they stagnate. And due to the noxious pesticides that are used in these mass-produced plants, you might also be killing honey bees.

You are better off growing your own plants from seed. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll end up with much healthier and more productive plants, and you’ll be able to grow very tasty and interesting varieties that aren’t available in the big box stores.

Many of the most desirable vegetables need to be started indoors from seed — like tomatoes, broccoli, onions (from seed), cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers, and (for the best results) summer squashes.

Growing them on a sunny windowsill probably won’t cut it. To get good results you need a seedling growing table. It’s an investment, but it will pay off in the long run.

There’s two routes you go — you can buy a pre-made table, or you can make your own. Pre-made tables are expensive — you’ll spend $400 or more.  I think if you are somewhat handy with tools, you are better off building your own. It will be a lot cheaper and you can custom build it to fit your available space and needs.

Build your own

I just built a large table in my basement to replace a venerable table that I had been using for 25 years. The old table was designed by my college friend Todd and based around a 4-bulb fluorescent fixture that my brother-in-law/gardening bro Skip gave me. I had modified it over the years in an effort to solve the most vexing problem I had — heat consistency. Long story short, I couldn’t beat the heat problem. Also, I need to grow a lot more seedlings to keep up with my farmstand’s customer demand, and the fixture I was using was the old T12 bulb technology.

I built the new seedling table in my basement. Most underground spaces will have a baseline temperature of 50-55 degrees, which is a bit cold for seedlings but you can use some techniques to bump up the heat. The best reason to put it in your basement is the temperature will stay consistent. My old light table was in the barn, where springtime temperatures can swing wildly from the 20s to the 70s.

How much does it cost?

You don’t need to buy a lot of stuff to build a light table. Let’s say you want to build a 2-foot-by 4-foot table. That’s big enough to grow about 4 large trays of plants — in other words, hundreds of seedlings! Here’s a look at what you need to buy:

  • Lumber: eight 2x4s ($20); one 2-foot by 4-foot piece of plywood ($10)
  • Lights: One 4-bulb T8 florescent fixture ($40 to $50), 4 T8 aquarium/plant bulbs ($40) T8s are a newer technology that use a lot less energy than the old T12s, and can produce a richer range of plant-healthy light.
  • Heat pad: One seedling heat pad — they come in a variety of sizes ($20-$40)
  • Light timer: One light timer ($10)… plants should be exposed to light for about 14-16 hours a day; they need time to “sleep” with the lights off, just as we do.
  • Hardware: A box of 2-inch wood screws ($5), and a box of 3-inch wood screws ($5)
  • Plastic: A sheet of 3-foot-by-50-foot clear plastic, at least 3.5 mil in thickness. ($10)

TOTAL COST: $120 to $150

TOOLS: Here’s what you need for tools:

  • A power screwdriver (cordless is best), with phillips head attachment
  • A phillips head screwdriver
  • A stapler
  • A power saw
  • Tape measure

LABOR: Even for an awful carpenter like me, this project is pretty simple. Power tools can make up for a lot of knuckleheaded problems, like making sure the cuts are straight. There are lots of do-it-yourself blog posts and videos on how to build one, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. Here’s a good one.

This is a great project to tackle at this time of the year, when it’s too early to plant outside yet you’ve got the planting bug.

So clear out a junky corner of the basement and make room for a little project that will put you in great shape to have a fantastic vegetable garden this summer.

John Macone owns Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury, Mass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to do with all those tomatoes?

Are you drowning in a sea of tomatoes?  Are the neighbors barring their doors when they see you coming with armloads of them?

Well, we all know that 6 months from now you’ll be longing for that enormous pile of fresh tomatoes. Nothing in the store nor in the can comes close.

Did you know that you can keep that fresh tomato bliss alive all year long? I’m overstating it a little bit, but you’ll see my point.

Now is the time to stew them up and freeze them. The flavor of a fresh stewed and frozen tomato is unbeatable, especially if you enjoy making tomato sauce dishes. I’ve been doing it for years and I think I finally have the right formula and combination of equipment. So let’s get started.

First of all, you’ll need a decent amount of freezer space, and a fair number of plastic storage containers. I use quart-sized yogurt containers. They are sturdy, they stack well, they hold a convenient quantity of tomato sauce, and you don’t have to buy them separately.

Next, gather your tomatoes. I find that a 50/50 combination of salad tomatoes and paste tomatoes makes for a good consistency. Wash them well, and remove the stems. You can cut them up if you want, but it’s extra work and isn’t crucial. Put them in a large covered pot (fill it to the top if you can) and heat it on a low temperature. After about a half hour, you should have a nice stew of tomatoes, skin and seeds.

The cheap way to proceed is to dump this into a blender and grind it into a puree. The problem is you’ll never eliminate all the seeds, and you have lots of small (and not so small) needle-shaped pieces of skin.

The slightly more expensive way to proceed is to get a grinding mill. They miraculously remove the seeds, skin and any other undesirable stuff from the mix. You are left with a perfectly smooth sauce. They come in all shapes, sizes and costs. I recently bought one that I feel I can recommend — a Norpro Sauce Master. It cost about $60 and is easy to assemble, and relatively easy to clean. You can easily process gallons of tomatoes with it in a short period of time.

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A tomato mill in action

 

Which ever way you choose to process your tomatoes, fill your containers up about 5/6ths of the way, let the stew cool down if it’s hot, cover it and put it in the freezer. You’ll have perfect tomato flavor all year round.

If you don’t have enough fresh tomatoes, stop by our farm stand and we’ll set you up with a nice mix of fresh organic heirlooms at our wicked cheap prices!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass.  

 

Want to learn how to grow organic food inexpensively?

Here at Farmer John’s, “cheap” is our middle name.  And I mean that in the nicest possible way. We hunt around for low cost and no-cost sources of organic material that we use to build up the soil, then we stick to the regimen of growing our produce organically.

There’s an old saying, “A healthy soil makes for a happy plant.” And it’s true. If you can pump up your soil with the natural ingredients that it needs, it will reward you with fantastically healthy plants that are able to ward off many of the diseases and insects that are the bane of “chemical gardens,” the gardens that are raised on a diet of chemical fertilizers.

And that leads me to my sales pitch. Tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 4), at 9 a.m. here at 8 Kendricks Court, Amesbury,  I’ll be leading a talk/demonstration on where to find low-cost, no-cost organic material for your garden. We are surrounded by many prime sources of no-cost organics, you just need to know where to find them!

We’ll talk in detail about how to get them and how to process them correctly. We’ll dip into the science of how each of these components benefits your garden, and we’ll talk about how chemical-based fertilizers are doing serious damage to our environment.

The program is being sponsored by North Shore Permaculture Collaborative, a great local organization that is helping people learn how to live healthier lives.

The cost is $10. Here’s a link to the sign-up.

North Shore Permaculture Collaborative

Newburyport, MA
636 Permaculture Advocates

Our group seeks to provide a structure to link, support, collaborate with and expand the community of individuals and organizations in our area interested in learning and prac…

Next Meetup

A Low-Cost/No-Cost Way to Healthy Soil – and it’s Local!

Saturday, Aug 5, 2017, 9:00 AM
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Check out this Meetup Group →

 

May update: the spring that barely sprang

May has finally come to an end, and here’s an update on what’s going on at Farmer John’s Organic Foods.

I heard somewhere that there’s this thing in the sky called “the sun.” It made a brief appearance a couple of weeks ago. Looked impressive.

The plants seem to think the same thing. They’ve been huddled down close to the ground, with all but the peas and broccoli deciding they are better off staying put. This is one of the poorest springs for seed germination that I can recall — too much rain, not enough warmth. That means the soil isn’t heating up enough to allow for germination of most of the seeds that gardeners plant at this time of year, like cucumbers and beans.

On the other hand, plants that love a moist spring, like tomato seedlings, are doing well. Certain kinds of cold weather crops are also thriving, like spinach.

The biggest project that’s underway is a 30% expansion of the vegetable area. We’re adding about 1,100 square feet, primarily for sweet corn and fall crops. Our super sweet and hyper fresh corn was a huge hit with customers last year, and we sold out every time we put it on the stand. In fact, one guy was so excited about it he chased me all over the farm, hoping to get every last ear. So this year we’re hoping to keep our customers happy with full shares of corn.

The field-clearing exercise is hard work, as the sod here is extremely robust and requires a frontend loader to strip it off. Otherwise, a rototiller just bounces off it. That will take several days to complete.

This year, for the first time, we offered seedlings at the farmstand. Thanks to the many customers who stopped by and bought from us. We specialize in rare/heirloom tomato seedlings, and I’m happy to report that nearly all of them sold out. Next year we’ll be expanding our selection.

The best news of the spring has been the near collapse of the winter moth population. Those nasty little creatures wiped out the blueberry crop 2 years in a row, and did tree-mendous damage to the trees. It appeared in the late fall that we’d be pummeled again, given the number of adult moths that were flittering around. But something happened over the winter that savaged them. I have 2 theories — we had an extraordinarily windy winter, with at least 2 storms with wind gusts exceeding 60 mph. Those storms blew down hundreds of branches, and no doubt also dislodged many winter moth eggs. The other factor is the poultry plundering. I set the chickens out all year to feast on the moth’s larva. I know it sounds gross, but the chickens loved it and the moths didn’t. The chickens took a big chunk out of their population.

The net effect is a happy one for our customers. This year we’ll have a good crop of highbush blueberries, in addition to the raspberry crop that looks to be very robust. The blueberries will be on the stand around the end of June, and the first crop of raspberries should be available a couple weeks later.

 

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Spring chicks racing around the yard.

 

Lastly, we have increased the size of our poultry flock, with 6 pullets. They’ve been integrated with the older hens, and I expect that by September we’ll be seeing a substantial increase in egg production. These are true “free-range” chickens, wandering all over the place to get the proteins they need to create the best tasting and healthiest eggs you can find. Can’t wait to get “the girls” up to full production.

The farmstand will be sort of dormant for awhile, as we wait for the much-delayed produce to ripen. I expect that by mid to late June we’ll have a great selection of organic produce to sell at our wicked cheap prices. Stop by!

John Macone operates Farm John’s Organic Foods, an organic fruit/vegetable/egg farm in Amesbury. To keep up with what’s on the farmstand and in the fields, like his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

How to deal with 2 bummer tomato maladies

It’s the time of year when I think every Italian farmer (and every tomato lover) does a little happy dance. It’s time to put the tomatoes in the ground.

It’s a beautiful thing, getting those spindly young plants in the soil and watching them grow — that is, unless 2 common maladies decide to rain on your tomato parade. One is an ugly and not-so-clever grub, and the other is a nasty little fungus that lurks under the surface. We’ll talk about how to deal with both of them, easily and organically.

Cutworms

Cutworms aren’t really worms. They are caterpillars — usually greyish in color, about an inch or so long, and fat. They curl up into a “C” and remain motionless in the soil, then emerge at night and start doing their damage to your precious tomato plants. Someday they will grow into beautiful moths — if you think the dull grey, mean and warty look is attractive.

Can you tell I really don’t like them?

It’s not their appearance, it’s their gameplan that I really don’t like. Instead of chewing a few leaves, they go for the gold on the very first bite. They chew all night, chopping down your tomato (or broccoli. cabbage, or whatever) and leaving its decapitated top lying prostrate on the ground. A really demoralizing sight for you in the morning.

Luckily, they are not well equipped to deal with an enraged gardener. If you dig all around the plant, somewhere within a 6-inch radius you’ll find the culprit. There’s 2 scientifically proven actions to take at this point — either you fling them as far as you can, or you squash them. Both have the desired effect. And if you have chickens, this grub is like prime rib for them.

How do you protect your plants? I always advocate the cheap but effective route, and in this case that means cutting up cardboard boxes — like cereal boxes, or pasta boxes or something like that — into 3-inch wide strips that are about 6-8 inches long. Wrap those strips around the plant, with the printed side facing out. The printed side is slightly slick and that helps defeat the clumsy cutworm. Bury the collar into the ground about an inch or 2. If you don’t have enough cardboard, feel free to go to the grocery store and buy something you can empty fast — like your favorite cookies or crackers. Then eat the contents rapidly and cut up the box. Remember, this is all in the name of organic farming, so it’s OK.

There’s the slightest chance that a cutworm is within the collar that you just created, but it’s a longshot.

Another method is buying diatomaceous earth, and sprinkling it around your plants. It acts like broken glass on the cutworm’s body. Nasty stuff if you are a worm. But it can be fairly expensive, and it prevents you from the legitimate need to go cookie shopping.

Early blight

This is a big bummer for tomato lovers. Pretty much everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains — and we’re pretty far east of them — has early blight in the soil. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of, but you can manage it.

Early blight, and its lethal sibling late blight (the cause of Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s that sparked the massive wave of immigration to this nation), will utterly wipe out your tomato crop. It starts as black or brownish spots on tomato leaves, with yellow usually surrounding the lesion. It spreads fast.

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A row of brandywine tomatoes that has anti-cutworm collars and grass clipping mulch.

 

 

Here’s the key to preventing it. It’s in the ground and usually gets transmitted to your plants by water splashing on the ground and spraying the undersides of leaves with infected soil. If you mulch the ground around your plants, it largely prevents the whole transmission from happening. If the infection gets ahold of your plants, go out and buy copper fungicide, a very effective spray that will stop the blight in its tracks.

Mulching is an excellent strategy for tomatoes in general, because it helps hold moisture around the roots and prevents problems like blossom end rot. I like to use grass clippings as a mulch, or horse manure. I’m a big fan of horse manure, as I’ve pointed out enthusiastically in a prior blog.

Oh and guess what? Cutworms have a hard time navigating over and through mulch, so there you go.

Where to get plants

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I sell an excellent variety of heirloom tomatoes (and other vegetables and herbs) at my farmstand. You’ll find some truly unusual and tasty varieties, at low prices. Stop on by and we’ll load you up with plants that will make you the tomato hero of the neighborhood.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods farmstand on Kendricks Court, Amesbury Mass. The farmstand is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.